In the midst of a yearlong celebration of five decades of rocket engine testing, Stennis Space Center found itself in a position similar to what it faced as the 1970s arrived – wondering what its future engine testing assignment would be.
In the early days of the 1970s, with the end of the Apollo Program, the future of the nation's space program – and Stennis' role in it – were unclear. In January 1972, NASA announced launch of the Space Shuttle Program and assigned responsibility for testing the main engines that would power the shuttle spacecraft to Stennis. The first space shuttle main engine test at Stennis in 1975 marked the beginning of 34 years of testing for 135 shuttle missions.
When the Space Shuttle Program ended this summer, the questions again arose about the future of the nation's space program and Stennis' role in it.
It turned out to be a case of deja vu all over again.
NASA announced in mid-September plans to build a new heavy-lift Space Launch System that can carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space once more. The agency also announced that Stennis Space Center would test both engines that will power the new craft – the RS-25 D/E and the next-generation J-2X.
It makes sense. The RS-25 D/E actually is the space shuttle main engine Stennis has excelled at testing. Five of the engines will be used to power the core stage of the new SLS. The J-2X is being developed as an upper-stage engine that can fire in space and carry humans beyond low-Earth orbit. Stennis already is conducting early tests on the engine and building a new stand to conduct simulated high-altitude tests on it as well.
"Testing of these two engines sets the stage at Stennis for another generation or more," Director Patrick Scheuermann said. "It is assured that Stennis will play a central role in the next 50 years of American space exploration."
The assessment is right in more ways than one. Even as NASA prepares to launch its new space adventures, Stennis is testing engines that will be used to power commercial ventures into space as well. It currently tests the Aerojet AJ26 engine that will power Orbital Sciences Corporation's commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station. Other such testing agreements are in the works or certain to come.
"In the last five decades, Stennis has proven its value as the nation's largest rocket engine test facility," Scheuermann explained. "When companies start looking for the best place to test engines needed for their space flights, Stennis is the logical choice, and we are committed to making it the right choice in each and every instance."
If history is any indication, the close of the Space Shuttle Program and the culmination of 50 years of rocket engine testing is no end at all for Stennis Space Center. As it was so many years ago, it's an open door to new space adventure.
For information about Stennis, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/stennis/.
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